A couple of Sundays ago, I found myself in a very self-defeating mood, beating myself up. All of my thoughts were self flagellating and full of lamentations about how I’m never going to be anything, never truly accomplish anything, never worked hard enough et cetera and so on.1 My first instinct was to take to facebook for some good old fashioned vaguebooking2 to siphon off some angst. Though after having done it myself a handful of times and having read others’ vaguebooks and being struck by the naked plea for attention3, I decided against it.
(1) A great many of these thoughts also pertained to my reading of self help books and hiring of career coaches and the like and how none of those things seem to have worked as I find myself wishing I could be better, more successful, and, ultimately and most importantly, just more. These thoughts were also quite profanity laden but I’ll spare you an example as I’m merely inviting you to wade into my thoughts, not dive.
(2) I’m intrigued that there is no vaguetweeting. It would appear that 140 characters, or perhaps limits in general, make us get right to the point.
(3) The attention received is also vague and thus not particularly helpful.
With no relief in sight, I entered phase two of the self-defeating4 mood: recognition. I consider myself rather self aware and I often experience the phenomenon of catching a feeling while I’m having it, judging the feeling, and then feeling disappointed at the fact that realizing I’m having a feeling actually has no power whatsoever to make it go away.
(4) Alright, fine, I mean self-pitying.
For example, the negative thoughts on this particular Sunday were regarding my relative lack of success or accomplishment or true ambition. It didn’t escape me that just by virtue of having these feelings, I must be a rather fortunate person as I wasn’t upset over an illness or a crippling debt or lack of food and shelter. Only a truly fortunate person can be upset at himself for not being more fortunate. One would think that seeing privilege as the root cause of one’s mood should cause the mood to dissolve but it actually had the opposite effect. Rather than relieving, the realization compounded my mood and turned the whole affair into a navel gazing shame spiral.
On this particular Sunday, I happened to be reading the titular essay of David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. It was a lonely, claustrophobic rendering of life on a luxury cruise, the nature of experience, and the creepiness of having that luxury experience dictated to you. As I read his bleak view it occurred to me that perhaps this wasn’t the best day to look through the lens of a man who – at the time of the book’s publication – was a little over a decade away from his own suicide. One particular image of a parasailer5 was so stark it made me laugh out loud from how effortlessly he was able to turn what is ostensibly a lovely experience into a meditation on being uncomfortable.6
(5) “A red and orange parasail hangs dead still on the port horizon, a stick-figure dangling.”
(6) It also brought to mind my own memory of the one cruise I took with my parents where I got horribly burned on Paradise Island which is just one in a string of unpleasant experiences I’ve had with regards to the sun. As a child, I got burned. As an adult, I’ve been pointed at by children for being pale. DFW’s admission that he was a profuse sweater helped me feel a bit more comfortable about myself, however, as we share that trait.
My relationship with this book and DFW in general is actually somewhat strange. I came to the book in a circuitous way. I had heard of the book Infinite Jest and known that it was over a thousand pages long and had copious endnotes that required a separate bookmark and that anyone who had actually read it was smart in a way that I could never be.
Oh, what the hell, let me be plain: the existence of a book like this and the people who had read it7 made me feel inferior, both intellectually and socially. There are certain cultural touchstones that are completely unfamiliar to me and have had automatic brilliance conferred upon them. Only the right people know about these things. These right people like Neutral Milk Hotel and Jim Jarmusch movies. They have opinions on, like, art. They went to Oberlin, maybe Hampshire.
(7) not only read it but, like, read it and got it
And don’t make the mistake of calling the people I’m talking about hipsters. Hipsters are on some level performative. These right people – the ones who get it – are too graceful to come off as hipsters. They are the kind of people who not only knew of a thing before that thing was cool, they needn’t bother telling me that they knew about that thing before it was cool because, on some level, I already know. Those people. These are the kinds of people who read David Foster Wallace.8
(8) And the authors that David Foster Wallace speaks about in other essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing… as if the rest of us know who the hell they are.
So, one summer, seven years ago, I heard about this thing called “Infinite Summer” where you read Infinite Jest from the first day of summer to the first day of fall. It broke it down into readable amounts and provided an online community of people doing it. Okay, I thought, let’s do this. Let’s try to get it. I also read an AV Club article9 about getting into David Foster Wallace. It said the first book to read to get a taste for his style was A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.10
(9) The existence of an AV Club article that takes a stance on just how to get into David Foster Wallace just further proves my point about his cachet.
(10) I should mention here that I’m a bit of an over achieving quitter w/r/t new interests. If I decide to do something, I won’t get one book and quit half way through. I’ll go out and buy five books and quit two and a half books in.
This is how I came to pick up A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I planned to finish it before the start of “Infinite Summer.” I was halfway through the book when, on a fine June day, my father died. And that is how I came to put down A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
The book remained on my shelf and I always meant to get back to it. It was when I started writing this blog and started reading books of essays that made me pick it up again.
No. Wait. That’s not true. Dammit. That’s not true at all. My interest was renewed because of the movie.
The Tour starring Jason Segal as DFW was really good and it made want to read his books.11 That’s why I started reading it again. That’s why I was reading it on this particular Sunday in which I was beating myself up. There was something prescient about reading this essay about not being able to enjoy something so enjoyable because that was the crux of my problem. I couldn’t stop thinking about thinking or think my way out of feeling.
(11) I’m no DFW scholar, though, I can’t help but think that this would have intrigued DFW to no end. To become interested in a person who writes fiction by watching a biographical movie about that person in which said person is being portrayed by an actor who never met that person and can create his performance only by reading this person’s writing is a quintessentially twenty-first century, practically MC Escher-esque route to someone’s work.
Reading the essay also made me sad for DFW. I felt like if I were to look at the world through David Foster Wallace glasses, I might see a dark green grid of topography and vectors of motion and objects with readings of various data for living things in his vicinity, like some kind of academic Terminator. Perhaps he was so enamored of describing experience and the experience of experience because, to him, true experience was either so foreign or, perhaps, too overwhelming. It was through reading him and learning about his life from whatever information I could round up on the internet, from the movie, from Charlie Rose interviews on youtube that I found out just how pained he was. I was just having a bad day. Even if I tried, I could never lose myself in thought patterns as labyrinthine as his.
It was by reading him that I knew that I had to snap out of it and that I would snap out of it. I had to relax because there will be an end to this experience we call life and I can’t just keep thinking about thinking about thinking about my thoughts.12 Trite though it is13, I need to enjoy right now or I’m missing it. It’s like being on a cruise and spending all of your time in your cabin.14
(12) Well, the fear is that I actually can. I think with practice, I could disappear entirely into a solipsistic world of my own creation. I just shouldn’t.
(13) Being trite is one of the many consolations of not being brilliant.
(14) That’s a mildly amusing metaphor if you’ve read the essay.
I actually took a nap later in the afternoon and felt so much better afterward.
(15) I stole last bit from the end of Portnoy’s Complaint. Philip Roth, now that guy is fucked up.